The Scottish Question is a British Question

The most dangerous of all the many misperceptions that swirl around the independence debate is a greater problem beyond Scotland than within it. It is that the question of Scotland’s independence is a matter of interest only to the Scots.

What is at stake in the Scottish independence debate is the possible break-up of Britain. Bizarrely, this is sometimes denied by Nationalists – especially by that variety of Nationalist who believes that their only route to victory is to pretend to the Scottish electorate that voting YES is no big deal. I’ll have much more to say about that tactic in later posts. More forgivably, however, popular understanding of what would be at stake in any YES vote is woeful. What it would mean is the break-up of Britain.

Britain is the country that was formed in 1707 through the Union of England and Scotland. Scottish independence means precisely that Scotland should leave this Union. If one partner in a Union walks out, that Union is no more. When a husband and wife divorce, their marriage is terminated. Their union is at an end. Scottish independence requires Scotland to divorce herself from her 300-year Union with England. Scottish independence promises the break-up of Britain.

This does not mean that the United Kingdom will cease to exist as a state in international law. The “United Kingdom”, “Britain”, and “England” are not the same things as each other. Scottish independence will not mean the end of England; nor will it mean the end of the UK. But it will mean the end of Britain. If Scotland votes YES, England, Wales and Northern Ireland will continue as the United Kingdom (with, presumably, a name-change, from the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” to the “United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland”). England will still be England, and Wales will still be Wales. But Britain — that Union of England and Scotland — will be gone.

So, for everyone who, like me, feels British, what is at stake in this debate is the destruction of the entity that gives us our identity.

All of which raises a mighty difficult question. If what is at stake here is the future of Britain, why do only those who live in Scotland get to have a say? Why is the future of Britain in Scottish hands only? In the 2014 referendum the electorate will comprise those who are on the electoral register in Scotland. You don’t have to be a Scot to vote: you just have to be on the electoral register in Scotland. And indeed if you are a Scot but not registered to vote in Scotland you may not vote (at least, not lawfully). There are two reasons that explain this. Both are compelling in political terms but hopeless as matters of logic.

The first reason is that successive British governments have accepted this position. Each of the last five Prime Ministers (from Mrs Thatcher to Mr Cameron) have adopted as government policy the notion that if Scotland votes in a lawful, fair and decisive referendum to become independent, then the rest of the UK will not stand in her way. On one view, no other option is open to the British government. How on earth could we contemplate the use of armed force to compel the Scots to remain under the rule of British law in the event that they desired to divorce themselves from it? (Echoes of Ireland, anyone?) On another view, however, this is the most extraordinary concession. Can you imagine the Prime Minister saying the same about London, Yorkshire or Cornwall? What if the Mayor of London was elected on a manifesto commitment that he would hold an independence referendum, advocating that Greater London leave the United Kingdom to become an independent city-state? Would the British government stand by and say, “bring it on”? It is unthinkable.

The second reason why it is Scotland, and not Britain, that will vote in 2014 is that this is consistent with the means by which devolution has been delivered within the United Kingdom since 1997. The referendum on Scottish devolution took place in Scotland; those for the various iterations of Welsh devolution took place in Wales; and those pertaining to Northern Ireland took place there. Even though devolution concerns the structure of governance within Britain there has never been a British vote on whether this is the structure we want.